1977, the Debut of the New Era: an Interview with Paolo Virno

Clashes in Turin after the killing of Walter Rossi, October 1, 1977. via Wikimedia Commons.

First published in il manifesto. Translated by David Broder. 

"1977 is the conventional way of dating it, but the social subjects and forms of struggle we still remember today had arisen already before that." That is how Paolo Virno, one of the most important philosophers in Italy and a leading figure in one of the 77 movement’s most widely-followed reviews, Metropoli, remembers these events. "In Milan there were the young proletarian circles, the demonstrations over the killings of Zibecchi and Varalli, and the mobilisations against black-market employment. And the subjects bursting onto the public stage also included factory workers. The 10,000 new employees at FIAT, for the first time including a lot of women and people with degrees, were also part of ’77. In June ’79 they blockaded the Mirafiori FIAT plant with the same vigor with which it was occupied in 1969 or 1973. At that moment there was a general acceleration, which asserted itself in an extreme way, embracing the whole spectrum of the labour force. And that year this all exploded: the clamorous subjective anticipation of a new order, which while subversive in coloration later took on the oppressive connotations of the neoliberal-capitalist productive order.

What did the movement anticipate?

77 was a debut. The new figures of labour power based on cognitive production and linguistic cooperation made their appearance, together with a reorganization of the working day that at that time had a subversive coloration. This was not the first time that a movement of struggle anticipated the future: in the 1910s in the USA there were the great unskilled workers’ struggles that preceded Fordism. We can take another case even before that, in seventeenth-century England: the vagabonds who were chased off the land, and not yet integrated into the manufactories, posed a major social threat. Similarly, 1977 is also two-sided: on the one hand it is a raw material of behaviours, affects and desires that took on rebellious contours and became a productive force, a present state of things. On the other hand, it is the tracks on which power and conflict run today.

Which of the characteristics of the labour force that arose in that time are still relevant today?

With its very sharp conflicts, 77 anticipated what really counts today. Marx defined this as a general intellect, which is no longer deposited in fixed capital but in living subjects. Consciousness, affects and intellect exist as interactions and as the linguistic cooperation of living labour. This upheaval signals an overcoming of Marx’s own blindness: for him, labour time is a residue and what really counts is the consciousness and the intellect that are shackled in the system of machines. The reproduction of life, and the productive qualities of labour power itself, are not just the ones that develop within the sphere of labour. If companies are going to produce surplus value, then they need people who have grown up in an environment that extends beyond the office or the shopfloor, precisely in order that they might be more productive within these workplaces.

Which of the subject’s faculties are put to work in this process?

I have focused on three fundamental elements of human nature: the infantile characteristics that persist throughout our lives, i.e. neoteny; the lack of a specific environmental niche for the human species, where it can settle in full security; and a high degree of potentiality, attested by the language faculty, i.e. something which is plastic and indeterminate, very different from languages. 77 was the first worldly, neotenical, and potential movement that drew strength from these faculties and did not have the problem of constraining its impulses. Up till that year, the institutions had defended themselves from these facts of human nature. After, and up to our own time, the institutions secured ownership over them and transformed them into a spur for social production and the motor of institutional forms. Today, neoteny has been turned inside out, taking the form of flexibility and an uninterrupted formation. The lack of a specific environmental niche has become mobility and polyvalence.

In what way has the neoliberal counterrevolution altered these characteristics?

These things all persist into our own time, though their traits have turned into their opposite. But I still believe that the flourishing of minute hierarchies, of limitations, of bottlenecks, expresses the end of the capitalist-dominated division of labour. Today, the technical division of labour is in large part dysfunctional, and it has become a way of colonizing the public character of the ethical, emotional, and affective tensions within the labour force. The changeability and unpredictability of these tensions have been transformed into true and proper job descriptions. And yet it is difficult to consider these tensions in labour power’s use value except in terms of their relationship with the wider world. The basic condition is the potential and need to share fundamental conditions like intellect and language. The segmentation of the so-called transindividual aspect of labour power is much more accentuated than the division of labour would have demanded in its own time. The greatest of potentials continually run into vicious circles. Yet this is a disciplinary overhaul necessitated precisely by this familiarity with the potential that would otherwise explode the productive order. So, looking at some of the forms of struggle that are possible today, we can read them as a historical document of what happened forty years ago. The centrality of these elements in our own time refutes any claim that we were representing a "second society" of the excluded. On the contrary, what was setting in motion was in fact a "first society," in the moment of establishing itself. And that is the society we have today.

From then till now, no general social action capable of overthrowing the new productive, affective, and political order yet been identified. Why is that?

That is the important question posed already in the 1990s, when we believed that the winter of our discontent was already behind us, and we began to see the civil — because rebellious — side of the new productive reality. But that was not how it really was: for then came Berlusconi. Since 2007 we have been bogged down in the global crisis and we are witnessing a further moment in which possibilities are closed.

What are we lacking today, in terms of being able to define a concrete alternative?

The union minimum: conflict over material conditions, like working hours, wages or income. This terrain is the starting point, and yet it has become extremely complicated. It is difficult to conceive of a conflict waged by women working in a call centre that does not go hand in hand with the construction of embryonic new institutions. Today you need a new Paris Commune just to avoid lay-offs or to secure a 30 euro a month pay rise. What seems like the first step in a conflict always entails an experimental invention of post-state institutions.

Why did 77 reject the forms of political representation, such as they had been understood up till that moment?

The crisis of representation is irreversible. In Europe and not only there, genuine forms of fascism are emerging: it is a no man’s land that can be inhabited by the whole array of different and rival impulses. 77 was one of the forms this took, and the movement saw it in real time, when [Luciano] Lama [leader of the CGIL union confederation, a PCI member] and his stewards were chased out of La Sapienza university. This was a fundamental change, linked to longer term processes which put an end to the state monopoly on political decision making. Even so, it is an optical illusion to think that the crisis of representation is a predicate of one side alone, i.e. a virtue of the anti-capitalist movements. Populism is another marker of its irreversible decline. In fact, this decline responds to a fundamental phenomenon, and it has become the amniotic fluid in which European fascisms and populisms are growing. They are the horrible twins of the sparks of liberation, the malign version of things that belong to us. 

In what moment was this rejection of representation expressed?

In disobedience, for example. This theme became almost our "constitution." It put in doubt what Hobbes had defined as a form of accepting command even before accepting laws. There can be no law that demands you do not rebel. In ’77 disobedience challenged obedience; and that comes before any concrete legislative measure. That was an extremely violent year. But once we look beyond the fetishisation of violence that built up at that time, we see that the movement expressed a right to resist the new configuration of post-state institutions. Violence is not counterposed to state and military violence. You assume a right to resist in order to defend something that you have built. That was the significance of the photo of Paolo and Daddo [two students wounded by police opening fire on a protest march in Rome’s Piazza Indipendenza] that Tano D’Amico took on 2 February 77

And what had you built, that you wanted to defend so strenuously?

Ius resistentiae defends something that it has already built: the works of friendship, a public friendship that produces forms of life, and which consists of cooperation and forms of general intellect and living labour. In 77 the category "friendship" ceased to be a parasitical one. The friend-enemy pairing was unravelled, and friendship was understood as an extensive cooperation. It is capable of constructing embryos of institutions, forms of life that deserve to be defended at any cost. As a form of violence, ius resistentiae is no more moderate than the violence which the women from the Smolny, the college for the "noble maidens" of Petrograd, directed against the Winter Palace.

How, then, do you take the first step?

Cultivating one’s own incompleteness, making it receptive and virtuous. It is necessary actively to make yourself available and to wait for the unforeseen. And this depends on precarious and intermittent labour’s capacity to make itself felt, indeed forcefully so. Faced with the expectation that the unpredictable will indeed happen, political philosophy has to sit and wait. For me the furthest frontier, the peak of theoretical reflection is the equivalent, in our own time, of what the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were in the USA. If I have to think of something that resembles post-77, and 77 put to work, I think of them.

Do you remember any particular occasion from that year?

The demo that came closest to having an insurrectionary character was the one in Rome on 12 March, a march without slogans or banners that took place after the killing of Francesco Lorusso in Bologna the previous day. I remember that I was in front of the Justice Ministry in Via Arenula, I turned round and I saw an old man walking along, rather tired. It was Umberto Terracini, a founder of the PCI, an anti-fascist and president of the [post-World War II] Constituent Assembly. This was the man who intervened, in French, at the first congress of the Comintern in Moscow, earning a rebuke from Lenin, who considered him too extremist "Plus de souplesse, camarade Terracini!" For Terracini it was natural that he should walk along with that march. It was a very touching moment.